When she performed in front of the word ‘feminist’, some said she didn’t do enough. When she wore an outfit inspired by the Black Panthers, others said she did too much.
In her decades-spanning career, Beyoncé has been accused of being both too political and not political enough. As the icon turns 40, I’ve started to wonder why – and whether we’ve been too harsh on Queen B, who was just 16 when Destiny’s Child released their first single.
For Black women like myself, growing up and seeing Beyoncé elevate and making cultural strides gave me the push that I needed. From the age of five to my current age of 26, I’ve watched Beyoncé grow from a teenager to a mother-of-three, all while creating a legacy.
She has, some would say, become more involved in politics in that time. Others have argued that Beyoncé has always been political – you just didn’t see it. Either way, the way she presents her politics has certainly evolved, but it’s not been without its hiccups.
Professor Lucy Robinson, whose research spans the history of sexuality and identity politics, isn’t sure that matters. “We hold celebrities like Beyoncé accountable in impossible ways, as if they might not have changing ideas about the world around them,” she tells HuffPost UK.
To look at at Bey’s evolution properly, we need to start from the beginning, going back to the days of Destiny’s Child. “Girl power” was alive and kicking, with fellow girl bands including The Spice Girls and TLC bringing third-wave feminism to a new, ’90s generation.
The bands were still writing about love and men, but we started to see more women in music reclaiming their time and money – and Destiny’s Child were no different. In 1999′s Bills, Bills, Bills, we see the group talking about a man who becomes dependent on his girlfriend to pay for his expenses – until she has enough and demands he pays his own way. In Hey Ladies, also released in ’99, the song focuses on why women choose to stay with men who do them wrong. The singers state that if a man messes up, he has to go. The narratives are almost empowering, but still focus heavily on heteronormative coupledom.
But with their third album, titled Survivor, Beyoncé and the band members find new autonomy. The album starts with Independent Women and features anthems like Survivor, highlighting female strength, and Bootylicious, which celebrates the way the woman see themselves and their bodies.
As Beyoncé transitions into her solo career, her first songs – Crazy in Love and Baby Boy – focus on men again. Did her political empowerment take a backward turn? Professor Robinson doesn’t think that’s necessarily the case.
“It’s really interesting that we expect an individual to have a straight line of political development as if anybody does that, let alone a Black female artist,” she says. “We expect them to have this coherent development of political analysis, as if we can get inside their brain.”
By 2008, though, Beyoncé is telling the world what she’d do if she was born with male privilege (If I Were A Boy) and celebrating all the Single Ladies. Fast forward to her 2011 album ‘4’ – two years after she sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration – and she has millions of women chanting: “Who run the world? Girls.”
It was Bey’s most obvious move into feminism, but writer Zeba Blay argues the song – along with Beyoncé’s light skin and blonde hair – still has mass appeal, because it’s “palatable...to white audiences”.
“When she sings ‘Who run the world ― girls!’ the girls she speaks of are an amorphous, ever-changing group, racially-ambiguous, of no specific social class,” she says.
Being a Black woman in the public eye is inherently political, and by adding your own opinions to the mix, you face even more scrutiny. Beyoncé’s ability to appeal to multiple groups while getting political is no mean feat.
“To have found ways to slip through the gaps and to own her own narrative, I think it’s kind of historically pretty unprecedented, to be able to do both of those things,” says Professor Robinson. “And then on top of that you have the impossibility to then be the right role model for all groups, it’s an impossible position.”
When Beyoncé eventually did make her personal stances clear, white mainstream media had a lot to say about it. Her 2014 VMA performance – when she stood proudly in front of the word ‘feminist’, singing tracks from her self-titled visual album – was divisive. Some said it was game-changing, others questioned her validity as a feminist.
In a piece for the Telegraph, Emma Watson said: “I felt her message felt very conflicted, in the sense that on one hand, she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.” Black woman like myself felt frustrated with the critique, as it seemed like white feminists were gatekeeping Black women from the feminist movement. During her ‘Mrs Cater’ tour, she received backlash again, as fans questioned why she used her married name.
But it was when she performed with Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl in 2016 – the year of Donald Trump’s election – that Beyoncé’s feminism became intersectional, focussing on race and politics. Some viewers found it uncomfortable to watch, because her outfit was inspired by the Black Panthers (as if that’s a bad thing).
Professor Robinson believes this upset people’s feelings, as she let white audiences know she wasn’t holding back any more. “There’s a big difference between being at a political inauguration and being associated with presidential politics,” she says. “Those things are accommodated within that comfort of white audiences enjoying Black music. But when you bring that to a football pitch, those lines are drawn, which makes people uncomfortable.”
Seeing her political transition at first did make me question why she wasn’t vocal about these issues in the past. I wasn’t sure if she was being performative or if it was authentic. But then I started to think about my own journey. I don’t think the same way I did when I was 18, and I’m sure my opinions will change when I’m older too. Nevertheless, I thought adding Chimamanda’s speech to Flawless was a huge power move. The speech resonated with me and made me think about my ideas of what it looks like to be a Black feminist. And it seems like I’m not the only one.
Abigail, a 27-year-old trainee lawyer from London, thinks Beyoncé has always been quite political, but believes we started to see a shift when she had her first daughter, Blue Ivy, in 2012. A bigger pivotal turn in her political awareness came during the Lemonade era, she argues.
“The visual album as a whole touched on the Black female experience in America and globally,” says Abigail, who chose not to share her surname.
“However, this is just looking at her career as a musician. She has always looked to address social and economic imbalances and this is evidenced in her building homes for Hurricane Katrina victims, supporting the families of those killed by police brutality, encouraging voter registration by having registrations booths at her concerts, creating the Formation and Homecoming scholarships for black students.”
As Beyoncé has evolved, so have her fans – and the long nature of Bey’s career means she has a special place in the hearts of many. “To me, as a Black woman, Beyoncé feels like a favourite aunt,” adds Abigail.
“She’s a reflection of the Black female experience. Her approach to the media and how she interacts with them is not just her maintaining the mystique of being a celebrity, but it’s her protecting her peace whilst still having a presence, something that so many Black women need in the workplace and in society in general.”
It’s been a hell of a ride – and it seems the Beyoncé conundrum is only set to continue. Her most recent album, Black is King, was applauded as a “love letter to Africa” by some, while others called it “incomplete”.
No one is above critique and rightly so – we should question celebrities and celebrity culture, but we should also allow them some grace. Beyoncé’s presence in mainstream media has allowed us to have conversations around Black feminism and intersectionality that we might not have had before.
As Robinson says: “I think the fans and the conversations around an artist, are actually where the real politics happens.
“Black feminism has had to do a brilliant job of explaining to white women that their experiences aren’t universal. These conversations have highlighted that some feminist issues don’t represent the experiences of Black women.”